From David Dondero's “Living and the Dead”: “I play the skinny indie white boy blues/ In scuffed-up military-style shoes/ I'm a convenience store connoisseur/ On a broken-shoestring-budget tour.” Indeed, Dondero is the quintessential troubadour, having traversed the continent from Alaska to Florida many times over, working everything from fish processing to bartending jobs along the way. That this itinerant singer/songwriter who titled his last studio album The Transient chooses to call San Francisco home is an honor to the city Dondero once called “the only place I didn't want to leave.” A folk musician for people who don't like folk music, Dondero plays acoustic guitar-driven vignettes that often draw from autobiographical events and overheard anecdotes, and sometimes serve as a cathartic, soul-baringly personal outlet. Colored by his vagabond explorations of the nation's byways and dive bars, this Minnesota native's narrative tunes are everyman miniepics, finding the tragic splendor and poignancy in the lives of the barflies, misfits, and workaday strugglers who populate this nation.
Dondero has been using the Mission District as his home base in recent years, slinging drinks at local watering holes. Images from the city often pop up in his songs, from Golden Gate Bridge suicides to sidewalk troubadour Carlos Guitarlos and that pigeon-loving 16th Street disseminator of one-sheet rants named Swan. Dondero's most recent album, Live at the Hemlock (Future Farmer), was recorded at the titular Polk Street tavern and includes an insightful Iraq War protest song called “Pre-Invasion Jitters” that prompted NPR's Bob Boilen to call Dondero “one of the best singer/songwriters I've ever heard.” Inspired by kindred spirits from Woody Guthrie to Daniel Johnston, Dondero's warbled vocals and fervent lyrics have been a huge influence on emo icon Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. His new album on Oberst's Team Love label, South of the South, will be in stores Oct. 25. The Team Love Web site describes it as “a perversely American record full of sentimentality, contempt, humor, and lust.”
Our Lady of the Highway
Remember when people were killing themselves trying to come up with clever genre descriptions like “y'allternative”? Well, this Oakland group was just what they had in mind — a band that makes country music for people who remember how cool college rock was in the '80s. Formed in 1996 by bike messengers Dominic East and Andrew Gerhan, Our Lady packs all the misery and torpor of country into indie rock's feedback-y riffs, epic major chords, and bellowed vocals. The band's debut CD, 2003's About Leaving — which featured full-time drummer David Clifford and part-time bassist Josh Housh, violinist Jason Kleinberg, and keyboardist Charlie Hall — packed together 11 songs about girls who can kill you in a second. East's lyrics scroll out like little power plays, most of which end badly. There's a touch of early Springsteen in the stanzas, what with East's narrators driving aimlessly thorough the night, trying to come to grips with their broken hearts and confusing wanderlust. East's voice is the perfect complement to such searching lyrics, his yearning tone rising to beseeching levels just as the guitars build to a climax or the girls step out of reach. (It's no surprise that Our Lady is featured on a forthcoming Magnetic Fields tribute album, adding some mournfulness to the ultraromantic “100,000 Fireflies.”) The combo has just started shopping its sophomore record, Beauty Won't Save Us, which is rumored to be even more miserable than the first. East's hope? That labels will say, “Y'all come back now, y'hear?”
Six Organs of Admittance
Six Organs of Admittance is the mystically flavored alias for Ben Chasny — guitarist, vocalist, obscure record collector, and wandering spiritualist who has split time over the past seven years between Humboldt County, Santa Cruz, and the East Bay. From '98 to '01, Chasny released a succession of records featuring his singular fusion of freely flowing folk meditations, gentle indie-pop, Indian ragas, and Japanese-influenced atonal noise-drones. Most of these releases were LPs, 7-inches, and lathe-cut records pressed in hyperlimited quantities. Despite this form of self-imposed obscurity, Chasny's reputation as a totally unique indie musician and brilliant but dramatically unpredictable live performer spread throughout the underground. In 2001, the San Francisco-based imprint Holy Mountain rereleased on CD Chasny's critically acclaimed second LP, Dust & Chimes. Over the next two years, Holy Mountain proceeded to release a string of discs and vinyl by Chasny, including Dark Noontide ('02), Compathia ('03), a reissue of his self-titled debut ('03), and For Octavio Paz ('04). Nearly every rock critic on Earth has hailed these records as the products of a true genius. Without allowing success to slow his artistic growth, Chasny maintained his feverish music-creating pace into '05. He joined his buddies' band full time — the ferociously loud, Bay Area-based psych-rock outfit Comets on Fire — and recorded an album, School of the Flower, for his new label, Drag City (one of indie rock's genuine institutions). As if all this wasn't enough, Chasny (since the beginning of his career) has kept up this side project, Badgerlore, a folksy, experimental collaboration with former Deerhoof member Rob Fisk.
More than 10 years after beginning his career as a talented teenager playing records for various renegade parties in the underground rave scene of Orange County, Nikola Baytala has become one of San Francisco's most beloved DJs representing the house and techno strains of dance music. He has few peers when it comes to his relentless work ethic, routinely playing at two to three parties on any given weekend night, whether it's a Sunset boat party, a below-the-radar warehouse gathering, or an early-morning set at the Endup, where audiences seem to love his infectious smile and captivating energy (he's known for dancing harder than many of his faithful followers). Baytala has played with top international DJs and artists such as Doc Martin, Derrick Carter, Daft Punk, and Swayzak, and has helped bring several notable up-and-comers to San Francisco to DJ at events he's put on as part of DJ/promoter collectives the Fool and S.W.A.T. This latter group also includes Kwai Le Chief and RaSoul, and has released several songs and mixes on acclaimed record labels such as Tweekin, Large, COA, Nightshift, Soul Food, and Tummy Touch, with more tunes forthcoming. Alongside other local favorites Solar and Iz, Baytala is a resident DJ at the long-running Sunday night club “Bionic,” a weekly jam dedicated to electronic funk that began at the now-defunct DJ bar the Top and is currently held at Pink. [page]
Jefrodisiac (aka Jeff Fare) started out as a punk rocker, not a DJ. But after stints in several goth-wave and synth-punk bands (including the Calculators, which also featured two future members of the Rapture), Fare decided he'd had enough of band politics and took to spinning vinyl at the Beauty Bar. Trying to set himself apart from the punk-as-fuck DJs at that establishment, he played ephemeral '80s electro from the likes of Shannon, Giorgio Moroder, and Afrika Bambaataa. In 2001, he hopped a plane for Barcelona and discovered the German minimalist techno sounds of Thomas Brinkman and Isolée (while also forming a friendship with S.F. native Bertie Pearson, with whom he would eventually start the Paradise Boys). Back in the States that year, Fare started spinning at the Arrow Bar, just as the whole electroclash scene exploded. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. As Fare once said in this very paper, “I went from being some kid who played stupid '80s records to being exactly where I wanted to be — in a month!” The DJ suddenly found himself in high demand, garnering opening slots for electronic music heavyweights like Juan Atkins, Marshall Jefferson, Felix da Housecat, and Ben Watt and playing huge events like the Winter Music Conference, Coachella, and South by Southwest. Today, he splits his time between his “Frisco Disco” weekly at the Arrow Bar and his “Blow Up” monthly at the Rickshaw Stop, as well as his live gigs with the Paradise Boys (who were nominated for an SF Weekly Music Award last year). His sets are known for their party-hearty atmosphere and his skillful, anything-goes inclusiveness — meaning he's more than apt to drop some well-known tracks (George Michael is a current favorite) next to some weirdo Italian disco record he just scored overseas. How very punk rock.
Monty Luke was born and raised in Los Angeles, a city he routinely dubs “the home of the body bag,” where he got his start as a DJ 17 years ago. While attending college at UC Santa Barbara, where he hosted a radio program called Beatbox, he helped form the Justice League Sound System. The superhero team of DJs threw its own legendary parties and routinely rocked impeccable house and techno grooves at events stretching from Vancouver, B.C., down to San Diego. Luke moved to the Bay Area in 1995 and has since cultivated a reputation as a powerful DJ in this tough market with his funky and edgy workouts. He's now part of the Bay Area collective DHP (Deep House Project), which also includes DJs like founder Carlos Gibbs and Charlotte the Baroness. Luke's first foray into producing was 2000's “What U Feel,” a collaboration with L. Ray Robinson under the name Loopwreckas that was released through Imperial Dub Recordings, the label founded by the respected S.F.-based electronic group Dubtribe. He is now working on solo material under the name ML Tronik, and plans to work in the future with Carl Craig, the world-renowned Detroit-based techno producer, a pairing that promises to be out of this world. When he's not manning the turntables or laying down tracks in the studio, Luke is often caught stealing moments to update his MP3 blog, “Juicy Bitz” (www.justiceleague.com/tsm/blog ), which features his exclusive DJ mixes and lively news items from the local dance community.
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone is one Owen Ashworth, a tall, 28-year-old teddy bear of a man who concocts some of the most melancholy synth-pop tunes around. “My favorite songs have always been the sad ones,” Ashworth said during an interview on www.tomlab.com. “I love Hank Williams and the Carter Family and things like that. There's something really satisfying about a really depressing song. Those are the ones that stick with you, I think.” Casiotone's tunes do stay with listeners, in part because of Ashworth's hangdog, give-me-a-hug delivery and his rinky-dink, atonal-to-melodic-in-a-second backing music (which is composed completely with beat-up, battery-powered keyboards). But his main draw is his lyrics, which capture everyday heartbreaks and precise moments of deep ennui, all with a sneaking sense of humor. “Although my songs are mainly fiction,” Ashworth said in the aforementioned interview, “I think they are in some way documenting the lives of people not too different from me. I like to think of [my songs] as tiny, honest tragedies in the lives of fairly average young people. I hope that they are stories that people can relate to.” If Casiotone's growing popularity is any indication, many folks can relate to lonely nights with Smiths records, cellists who choose orchestra over romance, and dates that turn into disasters. Ashworth began writing songs while taking film classes at San Francisco State in 1997, after realizing that it was far cheaper to craft little story-songs than put together entire movies. Initially, he recorded on whatever was available, whether it be an answering machine or a creaky boombox (his first album was called Answering Machine Music, an allusion to both Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music and Ashworth's occasional taping method). Since then, he's released two more full-lengths on Germany's Tomlab label, along with numerous singles and compilation tracks, and embarked on a dozen tours with such indie stalwarts as the Rapture, Xiu Xiu, Kill Me Tomorrow, and Cass McCombs. He's got a new EP coming out before the end of the year, plus a new LP scheduled for early 2006, which means his fans won't have to be sad (or at least as sad) much longer. [page]
It's not often that a band is so moving and interesting that someone feels the urge to start a record label he always wanted to start, sign the band, and put out its debut album. Such is the case with Postcoitus' Derek Wood and Derek McCall and their recently released full-length, Build Your Own Circus, which has the tender heart of the best '80s synth-pop and the resolute edge and jaded cool of right-this-minute. The Oakland band distinguished itself early on in live performances with showy accessories like costumes and strobe lights, tricks that creatively twisted the “two dudes with gear” stereotype that plagues live electronic music. In the Postcoitus show, those lights are as vital an element as the drum machines, synthesizers, and guitars that are the band's backbone. The simple ingenuity, not to mention the songs themselves, inspired Shawn Reynaldo to start Double Negative Records. Better known as Disco Shawn, Reynaldo DJs for KALX and Live 105 and is a co-promoter of the 9-year-old weekly indie/electronic party “popscene,” so it's safe to say you can trust his ears when it comes to discovering new talent. In the case of Postcoitus, inspiration begat inspiration, and Reynaldo's enthusiasm accelerated the creation of Build Your Own Circus and helped inform the overall Postcoitus mission: being freaking hot, at a live show near you.
Sagan is a local experimental electronic supergroup of sorts, currently comprising married team J Lesser (of Lesser, Matmos) and Bevin Kelley (aka Blevin Blectum, formerly of electronic duo Blectum From Blechdom), plus secret-weapon keyboardist Jon Leidecker (who often performs and records under the moniker Wobbly). The trio's music is a layered, wide-ranging sound that runs the gamut from dense blizzards of sonic shards to blissed-out hypnotic atmospherics. The seeds of Sagan were planted in 2001, when Kelley gave Lesser a DVD box of the 1980 miniseries Cosmos by scientist Carl Sagan. Later, local filmmaker Ryan Junell got on board, and last year the group released Unseen Forces, a DVD/CD magnum opus featuring a movie and companion album, bonus videos, and hours of MP3s documenting live Sagan performances. The CD is a haunting suite of loops, digital crunch, gurgles, and bird squawks, arduously compiled in Pro Tools from some 40 hours of live recordings, then embellished with overdubs and planetarium-prog aesthetics. The 39-minute Unseen Forces movie is a whimsical collection of vignettes paying homage to the scientific dramatizations of Cosmos, and has been screened at film festivals from New Mexico to Portugal. Junell left Sagan last December to pursue other projects, but the remaining three members are carrying on. They're working on the group's second album; early demos hint at a kind of melodic glitch-wave, sorta like Aphex Twin cross-pollinated with Gary Numan and Tangerine Dream. The band also has a 7-inch coming out on the Oakland-based 333 label. Sagan rarely plays live at the moment because Kelley (who co-owns a small flock of birds with Lesser) is in vet-tech school, but the band says that will change soon.
High on Fire
Growing up in Denver, Matt Pike was a self-described “little stoner metal kid, a little shit,” the kind who snuck into Dark Angel, Kreator, and Possessed shows at the age of 13; learned Tony Iommi riffs on his beat-up guitar; and caused enough mayhem to earn trips to juvenile hall and military school before winding up in the Bay Area in his late teens. Meanwhile, Des Kenzel — a Connecticut kid weaned on vintage New York City hardcore — decided in his early 20s to leave the East Coast, throwing his drums into the back of his car and road-tripping until ending up in San Francisco in 1996, flat broke and looking to start a band. So when the pair crossed paths a couple of years later, it made perfect sense to join forces and form the backbone of the insanely ferocious Oakland-based trio High on Fire. Filled out by bassist George Rice, HOF early on established a much more aggro style than Pike's previous band — the lauded drone-rock, stoner-rock outfit Sleep — combining the mammoth sounds of Motörhead, Sabbath, and Slayer with Pike's guttural howls and demon-and-battle-ax lyrics to colossally heavy ends on its 2000 debut, The Art of Self Defense (Man's Ruin). Even more monstrous was 2002's Surrounded by Thieves, which marked the band's jump to Relapse Records, purveyor of all things deafening and thrashy. In the summer of 2004, as the trio commenced work on its third album with noted engineer Steve Albini, Rice abruptly quit, but he was quickly replaced by former Melvins bassist Joe Preston. The ensuing sessions resulted in this year's breathtaking Blessed Black Wings, which — combined with the band's pummeling live shows — has catapulted High on Fire to the top ranks of the national underground metal scene.
According to its very simple mission statement set forth on its MySpace.com page, San Francisco's Hightower is “3 friends who like to play music and skate together.” By “skate,” of course, they don't mean putting on tight pants, hitting the ice, and executing triple Salchows, and by “music,” they don't mean strumming “Kumbaya” down in the Mission. Living up to their superstrong namesake, Lt. Moses Hightower (as played by Bubba Smith in the 147 Police Academy movies), the three members of Hightower — Shane in Blood, Dave Fallis, and Jake Japanese — play powerful, blistering hardcore-metal well-suited for bloody mosh pits or half-pipes. “Witness the blood in the streets from the tower/ We ride on wheels of fire,” offers the bloodcurdling bark on “The Force and the Fury,” a track from Hightower's beautifully underproduced, self-titled 2004 debut album (on Manbaby Records) that merges the sound of the Meatmen and Sick of It All with the galloping metal stylings of early Metallica. Four years into its career, Hightower may have already achieved its ultimate goal: getting a song on one of Thrasher magazine's skate-rock compilation CDs. But these three dudes don't seem to be easing up on the throttle — they spent almost the entire summer touring throughout the U.S., and they've got a bunch of local and Pacific Northwest dates lined up through the end of the year. Hightower rules, but don't take it from us, take it from a testimonial left by the band's faraway MySpace “friend,” Kevin: “you guys can fucking shred. 3:30 a.m. bowl session. rad show. you guys are always welcome back to rochester.” [page]
“We sound like two Californians and two Canadians trying to make funky rock music,” says Parchman Farm guitarist Allyson Baker, who in 2000 moved to San Francisco from Toronto dreaming of starting a rock 'n' roll band. Baker jammed with various musicians, but nothing permanent materialized until 2002 when her high school buddy and bassist Carson Binx also relocated to the Bay Area from Toronto (where he blew sax for the “garagey” outfit the Deadly Snakes). Not too long after Binx's arrival, Baker (while participating in a “round-robin jam session”) met San Diego-bred drummer Chris LaBreche. Apparently, Baker and he were the last two still jamming, so LaBreche joined the fray. As for vocalist (and longtime Bay Area denizen) Eric Shea, Baker didn't even know he was available for assignment, believing Shea's country-rock band Mover was still active. But, when Baker phoned Shea asking him if he knew of any decent vocalists, he said, “Yeah, me. My band just broke up.” From the get-go, the newly christened Parchman Farm earned a reputation as one of the city's best live acts. After the band's second-ever performance, Nick Tangborn (founder of the indie imprint Jackpine Social Club) offered to release P-Farm's debut record, which resulted in 2004's self-titled five-song EP. Since then, Parchman Farm has toured with indie-metal heroes the Fucking Champs and has gradually developed a style of heavy music filled with grooves and tight, soul-shouting harmonies. It's a sound that sits halfway between the Allman Brothers Band and Eric B. & Rakim — funky, indeed.
Oakland native Shon Adams is best known as producer/rapper EA-Ski, a moniker that stands for his “excellent ability to stay on top,” as deft skiers do when navigating tricky mountain territory. The propulsive, synth-heavy club songs that he raps over himself (such as “Ride” and “My Bad”) and those he composes for his Richmond-based protégés Frontline (“What Is It,” “Bang It”) have dominated Bay Area radio for the past two years, making EA-Ski one of the most popular names in the contemporary local scene. But thanks to 20 years in the hip hop game, his credentials run far deeper than his significant recent achievements. A pioneer of the West Coast gangsta rap sound, EA-Ski is often seen as a best-kept secret and is frequently overlooked in favor of more famous talents like Dr. Dre, who nevertheless, and along with people like Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Naughty by Nature, have hired the Oaklander and his production partner, CMT, to craft songs for them. EA-Ski has been a life force for Bay Area hip hop, producing for stars such as Spice-1, E-40, B-Legit, and even Master P, whose multimillion-dollar No Limit Records empire began in Richmond before moving to New Orleans. In total, EA-Ski has produced songs for albums, including soundtracks for hip hop film classics like Friday and Menace II Society, that have collectively sold over 15 million copies. He recently released the single “The Résumé,” featuring legendary Bay Area rapper Too $hort, and is preparing his long-awaited solo album, Apply Pressure, for a release in 2006 on his own label, IMG (Infrared Music Group).
Gold Chains and Sue Cie
In recent years, Gold Chains, aka MC/ beat-maker Topher Lafata, has become an international rump-shaking sensation by blending hip hop with abstract electronica and indie-rocker irony. Granted, it's tough stuff to figure out, a brash juxtaposition of old-school hip hop, socially conscious punk, and dirty disco — but somehow the gravel-voiced, tech-punk white boy makes it work. Raised in Reading, Penn., Lafata split his time between skateboarding, listening to punk, and playing in hardcore bands. He kept on performing while at college in Connecticut (a part of the country that has proved to be fertile ground for burgeoning live hip hop performers), which is where he picked up the holy trinity of gear — four-track, sampler, drum machine — and started cutting his own tracks. One of his first homespun efforts was a tape called Gold Chains: Music for a Higher Society, from which he took his stage name when he started performing in San Francisco. Soon, our man fell in with local label Tigerbeat6, and after touring Europe with Oakland laptop whiz Kid606, he released his first self-titled EP on Orthlorng Musork in 2001, a record full of sometimes-silly, sometimes-slaying foulmouthed tirades set to hard-hitting electro beats. His second EP, Straight From Your Radio, was another brilliant manifesto of tongue-in-cheek party music and industrial grinding. By the time he released 2003's Young Miss America and 2004's When the World Was Our Friend, the latter produced alongside newly minted partner in crime Sue Cie, it seemed as if Gold Chains had given birth to the most hyphenated genre in history. Look for him in the record store under “sweat-soaked-electro-dance-punk-shake-your-fucking-ass-off-party-jams.”
The Oakland hip hop duo Zion I is made up of producer/instrumentalist Amp Live and MC Zion, who met as kids in Atlanta and started performing socially conscious, spiritual hip hop out of the Bay Area five years ago. Their music has found a perfect home here, bearing the distinct thumb print of the East Bay's independent hip hop scene with its thoughtful rhymes, intricately layered grooves, and lyrics that strive for a little more than your standard bling-bling platitudes. After a couple of indie singles, the duo slowly made it to bigger stages with its solid live show, eventually snagging opening gigs with perennial hip hop faves such as De La Soul, Rakim, and Run-D.M.C. By the time Zion I released its debut album, Mind Over Matter, in May 2000, the act was already one of the brightest new stars of the scene. That record features collaborations with fellow Bay Area rappers Rasco, Planet Asia, and the Grouch, and mostly deals in straight hip hop grooves and the spacey elements of trip hop. Between that release and now, Amp and Zion have been defiantly prolific, putting out a slew of new records, including Politicks and Deep Water Slag 2.0, whose sounds have only gotten richer as the two explore the worlds of soul, drum 'n' bass, and reggae. Their most recent, True & Livin', finds them working alongside Talib Kweli, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Aesop Rock, and Gift of Gab, and its message can be heard loud and clear: Thoughtful, forward-minded hip hop is alive and well. [page]
Indie Rock/Noise Pop
Indie-pop bands have always been kind of wimpy. Maybe it's the fey harmonies, or the sissy-face “oohs” and “ahs,” or, God forbid, the stalwart loyalty to “jangly.” This is not the case, though, with the Heavenly States, who could simultaneously soundtrack and star in some nerd-cum-hero '80s movie about the genre. In other words, they're an indie-pop band with teeth. The Oakland troupe, led by moody founder/singer Ted Nesseth, offers a single-finger salute to the establishment — whether the establishment at hand be the government (the band traveled the whole goddamn world with a gaggle of journalists in tow in a [failed] attempt to be the first American rock ambassadors to a newly opened Libya) or the governing trends in pop. The States' take on that three-letter word eschews bobby socks and first kisses for squalling grit à la early-'90s SST tough guys and the noisy theatrics of Dinosaur Jr. Boasting a brother-sister backup squad in drummer Jeremy Gagon and violinist Genevieve Gagon, the band came together in 2002, existing for a brief period of adjustment under the questionable moniker of Fluke Starbucker. Since then, the members have earned a reputation for their jaw-dropping (and occasionally just plain livid) live shows, a tradition that started on the group's eighth day of existence, at a gig where Genevieve reputedly set herself afire. OK, so that's just an urban myth, but it's an apt one that's followed the band across stages far and wide, through soured indie deals (including a run on Future Farmer), unpaid 8 o'clock opening slots, and plenty of beer-soaked transcendentalism. The States' most recent recording effort, Black Comet, was released in July on Baria Records to well-deserved critical adoration.
As a musician, Kelley Stoltz is hard to pin down, because he's such a chameleon. On his records, he's equally at home composing shimmering Syd Barrett-esque psychedelic tracks (“Perpetual Night”), pretty Nick Drake-ish folk ballads (“Jewel of the Evening”), and spastic Soft Boys-y post-punk numbers (“Are You Electric?”). He can sing a pretty falsetto melody one minute and shout like a sexy boozehound the next. And then there are the songs like “Crystal Ball,” in which he combines genres, coming off like Phil Spector recording the Beatles underwater. As local singer/songwriter Chuck Prophet once said, Stoltz makes songs that are “fucked up and bent and, at the same time, composed and beautiful.” And for the first time, people outside the Bay Area are starting to take serious notice. Sub Pop recently signed the Michigan native to a contract, and the Seattle label plans to release an EP called The Sun Comes Through any day now, with a full-length to follow in January 2006. Stoltz has come a long way since his 1999 debut, The Past Was Faster, which was a decent-if-slavish ode to artists like Leonard Cohen, Captain Beefheart, and Echo & the Bunnymen. (He would take the latter influence to its ultimate conclusion in 2001, releasing a song-by-song re-creation of the Bunnymen's Crocodiles LP.) Between Sun and 2003's Antique Glow, though, Stoltz graduated from four- to eight-track, in the process pushing his home-recording sound in ever more exotic and inventive directions. The circus psychedelia of “Please Visit Soon,” the Velvet Underground chug-a-lug of “Mt. Fuji,” and the shimmering space-rock of “Mean Marianne” all proved that Cyndi Lauper wasn't the only one who was “so unusual.” Now, advance word on his new record is that it sounds like “John Lennon krautrock,” which sounds impossibly perfect — or, rather, perfectly impossible.
It's easy (and a bit lazy) to suggest that Two Gallants may be the Bay Area's White Stripes. True, the band comprises a guitarist/vocalist (Adam Stephens) and a drummer/backup vocalist (Tyson Vogel), and together they do infuse dusty Southern blues and country with classic rock oomph. That's about where the similarities end, however. The two gallants are both dudes, for one thing; for another, even though they grew up in San Francisco and have known each other since they were 5, they've never been married (or started a rumor that they are related). Musically, the two stick closer to the roots side of rock, more Skip James and Rev. Robert Wilkins than Led Zep or the Rolling Stones. (Hell, they named their band after a James Joyce short story, if that tells you anything.) Vogel favors waltz tempos and scattershot fills, while Stephens plays with a fluid, bluesy tone that hints at shit-kicking roadhouses and country honky-tonks. Lyrically, the pair focus on the deadbeat and downtrodden, with “If liquor's the lover, you know I'm a whore” being a good representative line. Then there's Stephens' voice, which eerily recalls Cat Stevens' if he had drank, fought, and fucked more. All this grungy glamour got started in 2002, although the two friends had been playing together since they were 12. (They're now a mere 22.) In 2003, Two Gallants recorded a couple of tracks for The Sound of San Francisco compilation put out by Alive/Bomp, and Alive immediately offered them a contract. The following year saw the release of the band's debut LP, The Throes, which garnered raves in Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, NME, and Vice Magazine (“It's two good-looking dudes from San Francisco that sound exactly like backwoods-ugly dudes from Nebraska”). Over the course of a very short time, the outfit has become one of S.F.'s most consistent draws, selling out shows with regularity — you know, just like the White Stripes. Hmm …. [page]
Forget about the fact that percussionist Babatunde Lea's former collaborators — neon names like Van Morrison, McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, and Bobby Hutcherson — would make a discerning record collector shudder. All you need to know about this artist can be found on his recent record, March of the Jazz Gorillas. With it, Lea leads his band through shimmering arrangements of both classics and would-be standards, enchanting each with a tasteful, catholic knowledge of percussive textures and harmonic voicings from every corner of the globe. Born in Danville, Va., and raised in Jersey, Lea started drumming in street marching outfits as a sixth-grader, and before he got a high school diploma he was getting studio work as a conga player. The siren of New York City's world-infused post-bop scene called, and soon Lea was stepping out with Leon Thomas, Oscar Brown Jr., Lonnie Liston Smith, Kenny Kirkland, John Purcell, Buddy Williams, and Eddie “Gua Gua” Rivera. In 1977, Lea headed west, landing in the Bay Area, where he quickly became a versatile figurehead and first-call drummer of the multiculti jazz scene. In a creed every bit as moving as his playing, he says simply, “It is my express wish that my music will empower people to look within and to wake up to new possibilities; to become agents of positive change for themselves, for their families, and for the world at large.”
Jazz singer Kim Nalley's rags-to-riches story couldn't have been better scripted if Steven Spielberg had written it. Raised in a housing project in New Haven, Conn., by her Black Panther dad and her Italian-Native American mom, Nalley watched Ginger Rogers movies and dreamt of a more glamorous life. She eventually attended a performing arts school on scholarship and then studied opera at Holy Cross University, before dropping out to play music on her own. For the next couple of years, she followed an unusual muse — the Grateful Dead — until the patchouli trail led her to the Bay Area, where she fell under the tutelage of BJ Papa, a seasoned vet on the local jazz scene. After turning heads with her fluid vocal style at small clubs through the '90s, she started performing with the Johnny Nocturne Band, adding blues standards to her growing repertoire, and touring Europe, where she met her future husband in 2001. Then, upon hearing that the owner of famed North Beach nightclub Pearl's was retiring, she flew home with her husband to take over the lease. Now, the sultry vocalist — who's often compared to Dinah Washington and Nina Simone — sings jazz, blues, and pop standards at her very own bar, just like in one of those old Ginger Rogers movies.
Rova Saxophone Quartet
The roots of the Rova Saxophone Quartet go back to Berkeley in the late '70s, when the Mills College free-music scene was literally screeching in the periphery of the national consciousness. In its earliest incarnation, Rova was made up of Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Andrew Voigt, and Bruce Ackley — four horn players determined to carve out a niche in the hazy (and frankly noisy) world of new music. Often credited with reinventing the saxophone quartet, the group features soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone sax, occasionally adding in the happy little sound of the “sopranino,” the piccolo sax, and the big, bad, twisted plumbing of the bass saxophone. Citing post-bop saxophone giants like Coltrane and Anthony Braxton and avant-garde greats like musique concrète icon Edgard Varese and everyone's favorite thinkin' feller, John Cage, Rova quickly established itself as the hippest thing to hit the free-music scene since pickled herring. In the years since the group's inception, its members have developed a synergistic style of structured improvisation marked by the dynamic interplay of the saxophone's lesser-explored tonal regions (many pieces feature sounds more akin to a mechanical turkey than anything coming out of Lisa Simpson's horn). Over the course of creating the roughly 40 releases they've had a hand in, they've traveled to nearly every corner of the world and have played with every heavy in the field of new music (you want a list? we'll give you a list! Terry Riley, Robin Holcomb, Butch Morris, Fred Frith, John Zorn, Kronos Quartet, and Alvin Curran, to name a few). These days, Rova is still at the bleeding edge of its genre, an ensemble with a singular, powerful voice.
Harold Ray Live in Concert
Harold Ray Live in Concert is the ultimate party band, able to turn any room, no matter the size, into a sweating, heaving groove marathon. The motley sextet — singer/ provocateur Jason Morgan, saxophonist Charlie Karr, organist Justin Magaña, guitarist Dave Coffman, drummer Jack Matthew, and bassist Dennis Cabuco — plays with all the combustible energy of James Brown fronting the Sonics, pure soul raging in a very grungy garage. For the most part, Harold Ray (which is a combination of Morgan's middle name and that of his father) plays old R&B covers, but the tunes are so obscure — and so rip-roaringly ragged — that they don't sound anything like retro nostalgia. Who, for instance, has ever heard of Wayne Cochran's “Goin' Back to Miami,” save for a rabid Miami Dolphins fan? Or lucked onto the Combo Kings' “Mish Mash Soul” or the instructive “Ain't Nothin' But a House Party” by the Showstoppers? We're not talking about a band playing “Proud Mary” for the bazillionth time. Not surprisingly, Harold Ray was begun for the simpler purpose of performing live — even the group's one eponymous CD, released in September 2003 by Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label, was recorded live in front of a select audience at the Werepad. During shows, Morgan throttles his mike and shreds his vocal cords, Karr bleats and blares with the power of a full horn section, Magaña does handstands on his organ, and the other players threaten to beat their parts into a bloody pulp. Harold Ray's shows are so cathartic, so calamitous, so crazy, the band has been chosen to play with such eccentric icons as Blowfly, the Monks, and Harvey Sid Fischer. It's only a matter of time before James Brown himself gets wind of the group and comes a-callin'. [page]
Lord Nasty doesn't exactly live in San Francisco — he writes his lust-filled odes to booty up in Ukiah — but he certainly has found a home away from home in Baghdad by the Bay. Perhaps few other cities are equipped to embrace a 47-year-old Texas native who dresses like a drunken Sun Ra, sings like a horny Barry White, and writes tunes about jacking off in the dark. For whatever reason, the good Lord (aka James Lemmons) and his Seekers of Perversion have played all over town, from 12 Galaxies to the Hemlock Tavern to the Rickshaw Stop. The backing band — which features several ex-punk rockers and one Rroland, who released an album of instrumentals inspired by his many past lives on Momus' label a few years back — moves dexterously from slinky funk to buttery blues at the drop of a hat. Meanwhile, Lord Nasty seduces the ladies with style and aplomb. Maybe it's his smooth, soulful vocals; maybe it's his confident lyrical style (“Look at All That Ass You Got” pretty much sums up his oeuvre). Or perhaps women really find it romantic when a guy can turn a Beatles tune into a straightforward plea for longtime sexual satisfaction (“Will you still suck me?/ Will you still fuck me?/ When I'm 64”). Lord Nasty has been at this game since the '70s, nearly as long as iconic blue performers Rudy Rae Moore and Blowfly, definitely longer than 2 Live Crew and Too $hort. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before teenagers are bumping to one of the Lord's classics, such as “Baptized in Pussy Juice.” Praise the Lord.
When the entire roster of renowned hip hop collective Quannum Projects hit the road last year for its first-ever national tour, most of the names onstage were as familiar as their talent was staggering — DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, Lateef the Truth Speaker, and Lifesavas. But a somewhat less celebrated figure shone just as brightly during that trek, her stunning, soaring vocals quite often stealing the show from the big boys. Operatically trained soul diva Joyo Velarde is hardly an unknown to hip hop-heads, however, particularly in the Bay Area. Her association with Quannum stretches all the way back to the early Solesides days, when the whole crew was enrolled at UC Davis at the beginning of the '90s. Originally a journalism major with the intent of becoming a TV news anchor, Velarde grew disenchanted with that career pursuit and switched to studying vocal performance. After a short stint with an opera company in Rome, she returned to the U.S. and was quickly welcomed into the myriad projects the Quannum stable was pumping out. The “First Lady of Quannum” piqued ears when she sang backing vocals on then-boyfriend, now-husband Tom “Lyrics Born” Shimura's 1996 hit “Balcony Beach.” She subsequently appeared on Blackalicious albums and Quannum's Spectrum disc; released her own single, “Sweet Angel,” in 2002; and was a vital, captivating presence on Later That Day … , LB's 2003 debut, which spawned the ubiquitous single “Callin' Out.” Having spent much of the past year touring with her hubby, Velarde's currently putting the finishing touches on her highly anticipated full-length debut, which has been nearly five years in the making.
Fusing classic Afrobeat, Latin funk, and acid jazz, the dozen-plus members of Berkeley's Albino offer a torrent of hard-grooving jams designed to make Mojito-gulping weekenders shimmy right out of their low-rise jeans. The sound is aggressive and brassy, informed by world fusion artists like Fela Kuti and Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo, and brought up to date with a mash of spacey global inflections (think of Herbie's Headhunters shanghaied in West Africa, and you'll be up to speed). The ass-inspiriting percussive engine comes from a rhythm section of local all-stars, including singer/percussionist Kokou Soglo Katamani, drummer Michael Pinkham, bassist Kevin “Bam Bam” Blair, keyboardist Bob Crawford, percussionists Trevino Leon and Gameli K. Ladzekpo, and dancer Kim Agnew. Together, they form rhythms based in the West African Ewe tradition (which holds at its heart the inseparable union of drumming and dance) colored with Afro-Cuban structures. Atop the band's rhythmic maelstrom ride tightly figured five-part horn lines directed by founder/tenor player Nathan Endsley. His section enlists the formidable talent of Seattle jazz trombonist “T-Bone” Charlie Wilson and a snarling dual baritone-sax yawp from Jonathan Hoops (featured soloist for Burning Man sensation the Mutaytor) and Michael Bello. Though the 2-year-old band is still something of a pup on the scene, Albino's members' résumés include experience in local heavies from every niche of the city's musical spectrum, including Starvin Like Marvin, Monkey Knife Fight, Spearhead, CK Ladzekpo, and Hamsa Lila. This is world music that lives up to the name.
Bat Makumba's self-titled debut earned the group a 2004 California Music Award for Outstanding Latin Alternative Album. But this energetic group of musicians is perhaps best known for its dynamic live shows, which aim to bring the vibrancy of Rio's famed Carnaval, the ultimate South American street jam, to any venue. These performances really flaunt Bat Makumba's extraordinary fusion of edgy sounds, from funk, punk, reggae, and ska to the samba and tropicália of Brazil, birthplace of founding members Emiliano Benevides (percussion, vocals) and Alex Koberle (vocals, guitar), who established the group five years ago with American bassist/vocalist Carl Remde. The name is borrowed from one of the members' favorite tropicália songs of the '70s from Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and it refers to the intermingling of traditional Brazilian and international influences. Onstage, the trio is joined by David Gibbs (various horns), John Axtell (keyboards, guitars), and Aaron Kierbell (drums). This year, Bat Makumba broke new ground as environmental activists and artists. In July, the group purchased a tour bus that is powered by vegetable oil and subsequently headlined “A Declaration of Oil Independence,” a benefit party for the Clean Fuel Caravan Coalition held at the Independent in San Francisco. A beautiful idea that's past due, the band's mission is to show the citizens of this country a tangible way to preserve the planet and reduce dependence on the crude stuff. [page]
The performance vehicle of Cuban expatriate German Donatien, Palenque offers some of the area's most legit interpretations of Cuba's son montuno, the harmony-rich, upbeat folk music perhaps best known through the soundtrack to the film Buena Vista Social Club. And while the group's individual members perform this rich, rhythmic musical tradition with zestful aplomb, the intangible deviltry of their sound becomes apparent when vocalist Donatien himself enchants the soaring melodies of son montuno. Donatien's credentials in Cuban music are indisputable: He started as a young man with the chorus of the Cuban National TV and Radio before joining the infamous Cabaret Tropicana in La Habana. Some time later Donatien found himself enlisted as a member of the chorus of the Cuban National Opera, where he performed under the baton of many of Europe's most prestigious conductors. After moving to the United States in 1996, he settled in the Bay Area, where he collaborated with a handful of lauded Cuban and Latin fusion projects, before founding Palenque to return to the traditional performance of the music made famous by Cuban icons like Ibrahim Ferrer and Eliades Ochoa. Donatien's crack band includes drummer Ben Krames (a graduate of the National School of the Arts in Havana and the Berklee College of Music in Boston), percussionist Norman Downing, bassist Steven Parkin, and très guitarist Markus Puhvel (a former student of jazz icon Ray Brown). When these musicians come together to play traditional Cuban favorites or original songs from Donatien's pen, their tightly syncopated rhythms and joyful melodies evoke the fabled sparkle of pre-embargo Havana.
Music Video Artist: Soft Pink Truth
Director: Ryan Junell
This Soft Pink Truth video for “Promofunk” is directed by Ryan Junell, who has made videos for Gravy Train!!!, Sagan, and, most recently, Spoon at a “Trannyshack” party at the Stud where Charo — yes, the real Charo — was judging a Charo look-alike contest. Drew Daniel, the electronics whiz behind SPT (also one-half of Matmos), came up with the “Promofunk” concept and brought Junell in to work his magic. Taking clip art with a '70s and homoerotic bent, Junell cleverly uses the color pink in a primarily black-and-white video. “The idea was to 'sample' clip art images in the same way Drew uses microsamples in his own music,” the director explains. In a departure from his video work, Junell will be serving as art director for the upcoming Killing My Lobster show Nothing Is Original. Like the show's comedic content, Junell says, “The set will consist mainly of found objects, repurposed as décor.”
Video: “All Pleasure”
Dubbing their partnership “Sausage,” directors John Benson and Ward Evans have been creating comedic shorts and commercials for years. As the drummer and guitarist, respectively, of their own band, Recliner, the boys worked both sides of the camera to produce “All Pleasure.” In what is better known to some as the “Party With Jesus” video, the frat-rock band shows off how cool the Almighty Lord would be to have at your average kegger. The chug-inspiring song and polished look got “All Pleasure” into rotation on Fuse TV. The duo's next video, “Making a Friend” (also the title of Recliner's first full-length CD), was recently showcased on RollingStone.com.
Artist: Itzhak Volansky
Video: “My Parachute Won't Open”
Director: Itzhak Volansky
Israeli-born singer/songwriter Itzhak Volansky says he always knew he was going to be an overnight success. “I just never knew which night.” He loves that punch line. As the director and performer of “My Parachute Won't Open,” Volansky has embraced the DIY music video and made magic with a cheap camera and some bizarre stock footage. Detailing the tragic descent of a sky diver whose parachute won't open, the video is a head-scratcher that makes us wonder if Volansky is a mad genius or mad crazy. Probably a little of both. As the owner of McDonald's Book Shop — a 79-year-old Tenderloin institution originally founded by a Canadian Marxist — and the son of Auschwitz survivors, Volansky has a sharp sense of humor. Besides playing Mondays at the Riptide, he is proud to have just inked a deal with Columbia Records. He says, “All I have to do is buy one CD for a penny, and they send me eight more for free.”